The morning after Dan Rather, cameraman Derek Williams, soundman Somyot Pisapark and I left North Korea, I had breakfast in Beijing with Derek. He lives in Asia, knows the area well and is a long-time friend. We felt disoriented, jet lagged, almost hung over even though the flight back from Pyongyang was less than two hours and we had drunk little more than beer the night before. We had spent a week in North Korea, possibly the most closed, secretive and regimented society in the world, where nothing is what it appears to be. We had been in Never Never Land and we didn't quite know what to make of it.
We had worked and lobbied for more than a year to get permission to visit North Korea and when we arrived in early October, top officials from the Foreign Ministry told us they would grant us whatever access we needed. "We'd like to visit your nuclear facility," I said immediately. "Don't be greedy," was their reply.
Our government minders were always polite and accommodating, and they were always with us.
Apart from the nuclear plant, we were allowed to visit many of the places on our request list.
But they refused to let us visit any residences or food markets, possibly because they were nervous about our reporting on food shortages or financial transactions. They thought I was nuts when I tried to find a store to buy North Korean clothing or souvenirs. The fact is, there is very little to buy in the country. The government agents called us their "controllers" and suggested more than once that we worked for the CIA. We were rarely told where we were going until we had left our hotel and climbed into the government-provided vehicles.
We were never allowed to touch or even see North Korean currency. Prices were always posted in euros. We were never sure whether the European currency was considered more solid than dollars or whether it was a slap at the United States. But the North Koreans love dollars. We were charged $78 to visit the Pueblo, the American spy ship. I needed thousands of dollars to pay our hotel bills in cash. Any bills that were wrinkled were returned to me quite dismissively. Credit cards do not exist.
A blogger with whom I have never spoken has written (I can't say "reported") that we brought our own food into North Korea. Quite the contrary. We had delicious meals, and they were far from inexpensive. Barbecued beef was tender and the dumpling soup was fragrant and delicious. But I will never forget the lunch when one of our escorts suddenly became withdrawn and even depressed. When I asked him what was bothering him, he told me we were disrespecting his country's traditions by eating our rice with our beef rather than waiting and eating it on its own as a final course.
North Koreans don't understand us, and we don't understand them. Little is being done to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Our countries have technically been at war for more than half a century, and negotiations to ease relations have been stalemated in recent weeks. The Foreign Ministry was quite eager to discuss with us at length what it characterized as their new proposal to come to an agreement, but the proposal has been on the table for a decade. The chief American negotiator agreed to talk to us about our visit, but he was overruled by higher leadership at the State Department.
We are eager to return to North Korea and do some more reporting, but we are not sure how the North Koreans will react to our 60 Minutes story, which attempts to do what Derek Williams and I could not do on that morning in Beijing – describe clearly and lucidly what we had seen and felt. Fortunately, Derek is a terrific cameraman, and his pictures tell an extraordinary story.
By Tom Anderson